Whew! That Week Eight game sure was a close one, and one I definitely didn’t expect. But no matter how close it was, the Bucs still came out with a win and move up to 6-2 on the season.
I know this may be an unexpected feeling for many of you, it definitely is for me. Six wins in only eight weeks? For a stretch there (putting it mildly), Buccaneers fans would have been lucky to get six wins by the end of the season.
Despite the struggles they showed against the New York Giants this past week, they showed that they had what it took to get the job done. Daniel Jones throwing two boneheaded interceptions didn’t hurt either.
However, it’s time to move on to the Saints. A team that the Bucs have not figured out how to beat in recent years.
The Saints soundly defeated the Buccaneers in Week One, intercepting Tom Brady twice en route to a 34-23 victory. Yet, even looking at the results of that game, I definitely don’t think it’ll be anything like that come Week Nine.
In the Week One defeat, The Buccaneers made mistake after mistake, throwing interceptions, muffing kicks, blowing coverages, running the wrong routes, committing dumb penalties, etc. Even with the myriad of mistakes, they still only lost by 11 points to a Saints team that has had years to build chemistry.
Cries of the “same ol’ Bucs” were heard far and wide, I was definitely saying it too. That was a performance we expected out of the Bucs of old, and that mistake-ridden football continued through the first five weeks of the season.
After the ugly loss against the Bears, the Bucs finally looked in the mirror and realized that they were only beating themselves. Since then, they’ve played relatively mistake free and that’s exactly what they’ll need to do against the Saints this Sunday night.
So, what will it take for the Bucs to win at home on Sunday Night Football? Well, as I said, they’ll need to limit the mistakes significantly. Outside of that however, they could definitely make a few changes from that Week One script to put themselves in an even better position to win.
Let’s take a look at some of the things they can do to take advantage of the Saints on both sides of the ball.
Limit the predictability (running from under center on first down)
The Buccaneers have been picking up the pace on offense as of late, with the exception of the first half of that Giants game of course. While they aren’t the No. 1 offense in the league, they still manage to put up the fourth most points per week.
So, what held them back against the Saints in Week One, and during some other times throughout the season? Their rushing attack. While many claim that the Bucs run on first down every single time, that’s just not true. However, they do run it on first and 10 quite a bit.
According to Bucsnations’ own Evan Winter, the Bucs are top five in this category:
Per SIS, the #GoBucs have the fourth-most rushing attempts on first down (130) and the eighth-most attempts (189) on first and second down in the NFL.— Evan Winter (@evan_winter) November 4, 2020
While he does qualify it by later adding that they are often playing with leads, against the Saints this season, they ran it on first down often no matter what the score was.
In that game, the Bucs had 22 rushing attempts with their running-backs and gained a pedestrian 71 yards (3.2 yds/carry). It gets even worse when you look and see that out of these 22 carries, 15 came on first down.
On these first down carries, the longest rush was 21 yards, with the second longest being six. Both of which came out of shotgun. On the other 19 runs, all of them went for three yards or less, most of which came under center.
What’s even worse is if you removed that 21 yard gain, the Bucs rushing attack would’ve only averaged 2.3 yards per carry on 21 carries.
When looking at the tape, it’s evident that the blocking and backs aren’t necessarily at fault here. While there were a few missed blocks, missed reads, or great defensive plays, the Saints just schemed well against the run.
Here’s an example of that:
I wanted to show the play from both angles so you can see why this zone run failed from the beginning. When Godwin comes in motion, the defense shifts and the safety comes closer to the box and slides the linebackers towards the short side.
The second that he reads run, the play is dead in its’ tracks. Despite there being five blockers to the play side, the Saints have it schemed so that there are six guys to stop the run, giving them a numbers advantage.
Even though the offensive line is able to get on their blocks and hold them well enough, Ronald Jones II doesn’t even have time to make a decision when he hits the line as the safety comes through untouched.
There are two holes that he can take, as indicated by the lines on the play, but that is all dead in the water when the safety shoots the lane.
This happened more often than not when the Bucs ran on first down under center and it really put the offense in bad situations on second and third down. The few times they ran it out of the gun, it generally went smoother, which is why I am specifying that they shouldn’t come from under center every time they want to run on first.
It becomes predictable and it gives a huge advantage to the defense. Despite the success in play action from the same formations, it doesn’t justify the consistent attempts. Even if they don’t run it as often, play action will still work since defenders have run reads that they have to work through.
Get the quick passing game going
In last year’s second game against the Buccaneers, the Saints ran primarily Cover 2 schemes and attempted to keep everything underneath. In Week One, they primarily ran Cover 1, Cover 3 Match, and some Cover 2 man or zone sprinkled in there.
Despite their zone cover schemes, they still typically had Marshon Lattimore matched man on man with Mike Evans so any throws his way won’t be coming between zones.
I’d say that they should definitely try to get him going downfield, especially because it really looked like the Saints couldn’t handle him as they committed multiple pass interference penalties against him. On top of this, Evans went into that game with a bad hamstring and will now be playing against the Saints at almost full health.
Outside of Evans though, there are plenty of opportunities to get guys going, especially when the Saints are in man. Receivers like Scotty Miller and Chris Godwin are able to run these quick routes with high rates of success when their defender is matched on them.
Here’s an example of that:
The Saints look to be in Cover 2 man here as everyone is matched up and they have two-high safeties over the top. Chris Godwin runs a speed out, breaking at about five yards downfield. Since the slot defender is playing him a little off, Godwin has plenty of room to come down with an easy catch when Brady throws it to the outside.
While Brady did throw a pick-six on a speed out, the coverage on that play had a corner sitting on the out while he had safety help over the top. This means that it was easy for Jenkins to undercut that route because if he misses, there’s a guy that can clean it up.
On this play, since the slot is in man, he has to make sure Godwin doesn’t come out over the top so he still has to keep him in front of him. This makes these kinds of plays easy pickings.
There were several other quick digs and outs that led to some yards after the catch, especially from Scotty Miller. If they’re able to get this quick pass game going, they’ll definitely force the Saints to come up in coverage which can lead to opportunities for deeper routes to develop and come open.
While I don’t think the Bucs will be content to pick up five yards per play, this allows them to keep the sticks moving while looking for big plays as the opportunities come.
If the Buccaneers are able to keep the chains moving, especially if they stop wasting first downs, it’ll be difficult for this Saints defense to stop all the weapons that the Bucs have, especially now that Antonio Brown is in town.
Slow down the screen game
Looking at the film, the Saints offense really didn’t do a whole lot to dominate the Week One game as the final score would indicate. Brees only threw for 160 yards and the overall team only averaged 2.4 yards per carry on the ground.
The big difference ended up being the big plays that they allowed, such as the long pass to Jared Cook that Bruce Arians later claimed was a blown coverage. Mitigating mistakes like this will help to keep that offense from connecting on huge downfield plays. However, the Bucs left a bit to be desired when defending the flats (as they have for a good amount of the season).
This difficulty doesn’t just present itself on quick passes to the flats, but also on screens, which the Saints love to run now that Brees can’t toss it 40 yards on every snap.
Not only do screens do a good job of rendering the pass rush moot, but they also get playmakers in space. With playmakers like Kamara, he doesn’t need a lot of space to get working, but he sure does have a ton here:
What hurts the most about this play is that it’s a third and long that ends up being converted for an easy touchdown. The Saints do a fantastic job of executing this screen, but even without this execution, the Bucs defense isn’t in position to stop this at all.
When Kamara drops down to begin his screen route, Devin White (who looks to be assigned to him) gets cut down by the convoy and there’s no one else to stop this from here. Sean Murphy-Bunting isn’t going to make this tackle and he’s about the only guy on that side of the field that is initially unblocked.
I’m not sure if it’s a defensive execution issue or just a great play call, but in either case this is a walk-in touchdown. On plays like this, the defensive line needs to be completely aware of that screen, especially when they have man coverage behind them. This is especially true when playing Brees as the pass rush is not going to get home very often.
Vita Vea (who won’t be playing this Sunday) does a good job of noticing it, but is a bit too late when attempting to slow Kamara down before he gets to the outside.
If the Bucs want to win this Sunday night, they HAVE to slow down the Saints screen game and force Brees to drop back and make decisions. Not only will this lead to more mistakes (potentially), but it will also stop the Saints from picking up effortless yards.
The predictability in the run game so far this season has been a limiting factor in terms of how explosive this offense can be, at least in my opinion. With Ali Marpet most likely out in Week Nine due to concussion protocol, it’s going to get even uglier for the Bucs running game.
If they’re able to shake these tendencies, they’ll open themselves up to all kinds of success in the quick passing game and in play action. Like I said before, even if the run game isn’t working, play action will still work.
However, the biggest thing that held them back in Week One was mistakes, so even if they exploit the weaknesses on the Saints’ defense, they’ll need to limit the blunders to keep this game in their reach.
On defense, the Saints employ a vast number of plays that are designed to get playmakers in space. If the Bucs are able to close that space quickly, it’ll force them to drop back and rely on the arm of Brees. Even though Brees is a hall-of-fame quarterback, I don’t think he has what it takes to single-handedly pick apart this Bucs defense.
With Devin White and Lavonte David, I expect that Alvin Kamara will be limited on some of his touches. However even with both of them in the first matchup, Kamara made big plays. Limiting him through scheme, rather than matchups, will be necessary to slowing him down this week.
While many people place the Bucs above the Saints in these NFL power rankings, they have to prove that they are the better team this weekend, and that will not be an easy task. For the Bucs, the time is now. This is their shot to show the world that they belong in the conversation, rather than playing second fiddle to the long-standing powerhouse that is the New Orleans Saints.
What do you think it’ll take to come out of Week Nine at 7-2? How can this team beat the Saints? Let us know in the comments below!